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How Algoma Autism Foundation continues to fight isolation during COVID

Despite difficulties, organization continues to support families
09-21-2019-AlgomaAutismFallFestJH04
A 'touch and feel' sensory wall in the new recreational room at Brenna Lanktree and Associates Inc. Behavioural Therapy and Consultation. James Hopkin/SooToday

Family life during the pandemic has its share of twists and turns, but for those with special needs children, the road is more difficult to navigate.

The Algoma Autism Foundation wants the community to know it’s still available to help and provide support for families with autistic children. These days, that support is done remotely by email or Facebook.

Foundation treasurer Melissa Raymond said the local volunteer group has tried to be creative, but it’s not the same.

“It’s a very difficult and isolating time for a lot of families,” she said.

The social aspect of the group plays an important role.

“You share commonalities and just talk and vent with other families that understand what you’re going through,” said Raymond.

Of course, it’s the kids who are affected most.

“A good majority of kids thrive on structure, routine and predictability,” said Raymond, who is the mother of a 10-year-old autistic girl named Sophie. “A lot of our kids don’t really understand what’s going on. The world’s been turned completely upside down.”

The Algoma Foundation was established in 2013. It has been very active over the years, providing numerous activities.

The organization is behind events such as Trunk or Treat, Sensitive Santa, sleigh rides at Mocking Hill Farm, bi-weekly gym sessions at John Rhodes and sensitive swims. They’ve hosted guest speakers and helped provide iPads to schools so that non-verbal children can communicate.

COVID put a brake on these initiatives.

Stopping events at the foundation’s sensory room was especially hard to take because it supported the needs of teenagers.

“We were holding teen nights and doing lots of activities trying to focus on the older crowd,” said Raymond.

The sensory rooms were installed in 2019 and are free to use.

They are located at the headquarters of Brenna Lanktree and Associates Inc. Behavioural Therapy and Consultation on Rankin Road. A $10,000 donation from Jeff Viotto and The Co-operators Advisory Community Fund helped make it a reality.

Jamie Boston, Algoma Autism Foundation co-founder, described the facility in a 2020 Sootoday story.

“There are three rooms. The first room is the sensory quiet room. There’s different lighting in there, different features to add a calming effect, and it’s got comfy furniture in it,” said Boston. “Then there’s the actual sensory playroom for recreational play. It has a ball pit, a climbing rock wall, a rope swing, and a bunch of different tactile learning stations. The third room is set up more like a lounge, there are a couple large tables for activities, some couches, and a TV and gaming console.”

“There’s also a clubhouse, which a lot of teenagers use as a place to hang out,” Boston said. “We do some programming there like Nerf Wars, Game Night, Pokemon Night, and other theme nights for the teenagers.”

Fundraising events to generate money for things like the sensory room have also been impacted by COVID.

The annual charity dinner was cancelled last year and this year. The annual Ride for Autism likely won’t happen in 2021.

“We really haven’t had any opportunity for fundraising which is tough,” said Raymond.

Despite the COVID difficulties, Raymond encourages families to reach out on Facebook or to send an email to algomaautismfoundation@gmail.com if they need help. The organization has been proactive in using social media for fundraising and community outreach.

She says the foundation helps hundreds of local children and says there are probably more families who do not know about the group or who have had a recent diagnosis.

When things get back to normal, The Algoma Autism Foundation will be ready.

“The second we are able to re-introduce the things we used to do, we will,” said Raymond.